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Texans’ zone blocking takes Broncos back in time

ENGLEWOOD – In hiring John Elway, the Broncos got back to their organizational roots. But the style of the Broncos’ offense doesn’t bear much resemblance to its last extended run of success from 1996-2005, when they won two Super Bowls, made seven playoff appearances and averaged 10.6 wins a season, more than anyone else in that span.

For that flashback, you must look to Houston, and its zone-blocking scheme that Gary Kubiak took with him when he left after 10 years as Denver’s offensive coordinator to become the Texans’ head coach in 2006.

Philosophically, the old Broncos way permeates the Texans’ organization. Their general manager, Rick Smith, was an assistant GM in Denver before joining the Texans five months after Kubiak. Six Texans assistants worked with Kubiak on Mike Shanahan’s staffs in Denver, including offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Another Houston assistant, Wade Phillips, was Denver’s defensive coordinator from 1989-92 and preceded Shanahan as head coach, from 1993-94. Two of Houston’s scouts, Bob Beers and Ed Lambert, are ex-Broncos employees. Even their director of football operations, Doug West, was once the Broncos’ equipment manager, and to further the Colorado ties, Sonny Lubick’s son, Marc, is an assistant wide receivers coach.

They’re more Broncos than the Broncos, in a way.


But the most visible element of the Broncos connection is the zone-blocking scheme, a tactic that has faded a bit in recent years as teams become more increasingly wedded to spread formations, but which has helped Houston steadily improve its performance on the ground, from an average of 3.87 yards from 2006-09 to 4.55 since then.

Of course, the emergence of Arian Foster in 2010 contributed greatly to that improvement. Still, the Texans have a commitment to the run that is arguably greater than anyone else, and through two games, have 15 more runs (83) than pass plays (68), a plus-15 run discrepancy that is tied with Seattle for the highest in the league.

It’s not the run emphasis that makes for a change for the Broncos, though — it’s the zone blocking.

“You definitely have to be technique-sound,” said middle linebacker Joe Mays. “hey can hit it front side or hit it back side. You’ve got to be technique-sound and take on your blocks the right way, and everyone has to be not he right page and in the right spot, or else they can definitely take it to the house on you.”

Added Keith Brooking: “You have to be patient. The gaps move quickly, so you have to be sound in your gap responsibility. You have to know where your leverage is, as far as your help in the run game, as far as if you’re bringing the safety down, if you’re not. So you really have to be in tune with that. And I think more than anything, it’s just attacking.

“They want to get you running sideways and cut downhill, so you have to take the attack to them — first of all, set the edge of the defense, which is key, because they’re really good at stretching the perimeter of your defense … The key is, once you attack them, get off of them and make the play.”

Curiously, although the Texans run frequently, they haven’t run as effectively as they would like so far in 2012. Houston’s per-carry average is a pedestrian 3.6, although the team leads the league in rushing touchdowns (5), is sixth in yardage (149.5 per game) ranks 11th in first-down percentage (22.9) and hasn’t fumbled.

Kubiak is undeterred by the per-carry average.

“We got a long way to go. We’re committed to it. We’re going to run the ball,” he said. “At this point, I worry about a lot of things but hopefully that average comes up with our play.”

Of course, that’s not to say the Texans don’t play like the Broncos do now. They employed the “sugar huddle” permutation of the no-huddle offense in their road opener at Jacksonville last Sunday.

“We wanted to push the tempo of the game,” Kubiak said. “We wanted to come out of the game with more snaps than we may normally average in a game so tried to push the tempo that way. Obviously we got I think 84, 85 offensive snaps so that was accomplished from that standpoint.”

Being on the road helped spur Kubiak’s decision to eschew traditional huddles, so you can expect it again at Sports Authority Field at Mile High this weekend.

“We’re on the road we didn’t want to flip personnels a bunch, that type of thing,” Kubiak said. “(It is) something we’re capable of doing all the time so hopefully we gained some confidence in it.”

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